The Biomass Cook Stove Industry

This article was written by Jon Sallé* and edited by Sweta Misra.

Risks in cooking

Safe cooking is a right denied to half of the world. Every day, 500 million women cook on stoves that burn biomass fuels ineffectively. In Haiti, charcoal constitutes almost 40% of household expenses. In India, up to 4 hours daily is spent on collecting wood and nearly the same on cooking. Smoke fills the kitchen, making eyes water and lungs burn. Soot coats the walls, pots and clothes. Annually, more than a billion ton of wood is cut around the world and as much greenhouse gases are emitted, inducing the mortality of 4.3 million women and children.

Credit: Prakti DesignMarketing operation in a slum of Tirupatur, Tamil Nadu, India.

How ICSs can help

As the term suggests, improved cooking stoves (ICSs) are stoves that improve the performance, convenience and durability of traditional stoves. For instance, when 3-stone fires are replaced with ICSs, the daily wood consumption and smoke emission can be easily reduced by 50%[1] and 80%, respectively.

In theory, purchasing an ICS can make significant changes in the life of a woman. However, the ICS industry has failed to meet (or create) local markets or reduce health risks thus far. A major organization succeeded in selling only 600,000 units in 6 years, despite a $20m grant.Here are some reasons why.

Roadblocks at the household level

In low-income households, cooking activities are often the female domain, while financial decisions, the male. Consequently, men do not comprehend the importance of ICSs and view them as poor investments without financial benefits, since wood collection costs are considered practically nil.

Therefore, the ICS penetration rate remains low and  the supply is limited. Frequently, the available stoves are not properly adapted to local cooking habits, defying the strong emotional link people have with such habits. Hence, the older ICSs are not always replaced by newer ones, but by traditional stoves.

The other stakeholders

Generally, wood is collected for free, whereas charcoal is purchased; this affects the ICS industry considerably. In areas where charcoal is used, there is an eventual return on investment, which benefits the development of effective markets. Whenever wood is used, the distributor focus is strongly centered on slums and semi-urban areas: they expect some awareness regarding ICSs and willingness to pay for household and commercial stoves.

NGOs are more likely to reach rural wood-collecting areas effectively: their gradual improvements on stoves give people the time to accept induced changes in cooking habits. The emerging types of financial products,[2] which are extremely risky, might be well adapted to such conservative strategies.

In the meanwhile, public policies tend to focus on ICS availability and affordability through different programs, mainly supporting distribution.

The way forward?

Currently, the available market data and financial & human resources do not meet the industry requirements. R&D funds to stove manufacturers are essential. Public policies should focus on these problems by increasing social awareness regarding negative impacts of traditional cooking, through educational programs in business and engineering schools.

The collaboration of major companies and NGOs can help. NGOs can reduce financial risks to end-users and supply locally-adapted ICSs, while majors can provide technological and managerial knowledge. In between, social businesses are perhaps ideal institutions to handle operations and work the ICS magic!

*Jon Sallé lives in Auroville, India. He works in the field of energy access at household level in developing countries. Jon graduated from HEC Paris and Ecole Centrale de Lyon.

[1] ICS impacts on GHG alleviation is such, that they could be given away for free if carbon markets were truly accessible and effective

[2]Grants that must be refunded if objectives are not reached

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